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December 2, 2015 / 20 Kislev, 5776
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Megillas Ruth In Jewish Art


The world of Jacob Steinhardt’s Ruth could not be more different. Eleven “Biblical” woodcut images set in the Land of Israel are seen with the Hebrew text, while the separate English text features generic Middle Eastern landscapes. The expressionism inherent in the woodcut format along with a masterly composition drives these images to expose the visceral core of the narrative. Elimelech, Naomi and their sons forlornly stride out of Bethlehem, oblivious to their fate. In the next image the resulting tragedy is powerfully implied in three female figures alone in a turbulent landscape alluding to the widows return from Moab. Steinhardt allows the text to inform and expand the meaning of each image, masterfully hiding one face to create a silent conversation, an internal narrative that we must fill in to comprehend the image.

Boaz Watching Ruth (1957) woodcut by Jacob Steinhardt. Courtesy Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia.

Boaz Watching Ruth (1957) woodcut by Jacob Steinhardt.
Courtesy Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia.

The most effective example of this is Boaz watching Ruth glean in his fields. We see her stooped over in the middle distance, intent on gathering her sustenance. Only the left side of his face and back of his head are visible, forcing us to enter his thoughts about this mysterious outsider. We know from the text that he will extend his kindness and security to her, finally relating a beautiful blessing of God’s protection before offering her a full meal with his reapers. All of that emotion and dialogue flows into the silence of his gaze. Steinhardt’s most powerful images are his most spare: as he ends the Hebrew text we see a simple crown descending through the clouds to lead us to the historical and metahistorical future.

Arthur Szyk illustrated three Hebrew texts: Megillas Esther (1925 & 1950); The Haggadah (1940 & 2008, reviewed here March 2010) and Megillas Ruth (1947). All of the eight illustrations in Ruth are characteristically filled with complex details, lush Persian-style color and expressive characters. The foregrounds tend to be the most crowded and each image is framed with floral and geometric borders, adding to the surface agitation. Some of Szyk’s images have a forbidding and stern undercurrent that expresses this artist’s constant awareness of the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people and well as other injustices. His stern heraldic lions, symbolic of the House of David, are found in at least 5 of these images. In the image of Naomi, Elimelech and their two boys leaving Bethlehem the background features a dead camel preyed upon by vultures, a gruesome sign of the famine in the Land. In another odd twist, the last image of King David features the caption “ I will fear no evil for Thou are with me” from Psalm 23:4 directly over an image of the Valley of Death strewn with human bones.

Ruth Goes With Naomi (1947) by Arthur Szyk Reproduced with the cooperation of The Arthur Szyk Society www.szyk.org

Ruth Goes With Naomi (1947) by Arthur Szyk
Reproduced with the cooperation of The Arthur Szyk Society www.szyk.org

Frequently Szyk is most interesting when he strays a bit from the text and delves into the internal dialogues the narrative suggests. “Ruth Goes With Her Mother-in-Law” presents the two women right after Ruth’s fateful decision to stay with Naomi. While Orpah is seen leaving in the background, the two women are seated, not going anywhere, and absorbed in deep reflection. Naomi is fearful, thinking of how much she has lost and how few her prospects are upon her return. In contrast, Ruth seems hopeful that something will work out.

In a similar manner the artist depicts the fateful moment that Ruth is discovered at the foot of Boaz’s bed. The text describes him as startled and puzzled as to who she was. Szyk depicts him as a young handsome man, contemplating affection and love. In a curious way, this was for the artist Boaz’s moment of revelation. So too in Szyk’s next to last image “And Ruth Becomes Wife to Boaz,” the young family, Ruth, Boaz and Obed, is seen under the watchful gaze of Naomi, in spite of the textual exclusion of Ruth expressed in the verse “There is a son born to Naomi,’ and they named him Obed.” (4:17). Szyk is creatively amending the text to provide a sweet and lovely ending to a trying tale of widowhood and twisted fate.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

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